Of the many trends in the 1980s US auto market, the growing popularity of both pickups and convertibles remain two of the most memorable. But it turned out that the combination of these two popular vehicles appealed to… practically no one. At least we can give the Chrysler Corporation credit for trying something bold, and as a bonus, it provides us with an interesting story to tell three decades later.
The Dakota convertible had many ingredients necessary for success. Light truck sales boomed during the 1980s, as pickups and SUVs made inroads into what had formerly been passenger car territory. Convertibles bounced back from the dead, helped in no small part by Chrysler’s own 1982 LeBaron. Developing a knack for finding market niches, Chrysler gave customers the 1987 mid-size Dakota pickup, popular enough to generate 100,000 annual sales. All of these factors portended well for the first convertible pickup in nearly 60 years.
The Dakota convertible was the first open-cab pickup in modern times, though its species did roam the earth years earlier, with Ford’s 1931 Model A likely being the last. From that point forward, pickups and soft-tops never intermingled.
Not officially, anyway. Car customizers often created convertible pickups, a trend that became increasing popular during the 1980s in sunny locales such as California. This trend didn’t go unnoticed, and Dodge’s product planners, sensing an emerging niche, visited California cruise nights, photographing examples of convertible trucks to prepare for their own adventures with this unusual hybrid.
The patient in this transformational experiment was the Dakota, first introduced for 1987 as the “first mid-size pickup” – filling the surprisingly big gap between compact pickups, like Dodge’s imported Ram 50, and traditional larger trucks like the full-size Ram. Dakota did, in fact, usher in a new class of pickup (after all, the former “compact” trucks are all but extinct now), and was successful enough in its early years to outsell Dodge’s other trucks, but Dodge executives felt something was lacking.
Dakota buyers tended to be older than other pickup owners, and often ordered their trucks fully-loaded – good for Dodge profits, but after a few years of this, the good folks at Dodge felt that their Dakota needed some excitement in its lineup if it wanted to avoid being considered the 5th Avenue of trucks.
This excitement came, in 1989, via two limited-edition models. First, the Shelby Dakota blasted away at the model’s somewhat staid and underpowered image by putting the Ram’s V-8 and a sport suspension into the mid-size pickup, along with Carroll Shelby’s marketing influence.
Accompanying the Shelby in the Dakota lineup for 1989 was our featured vehicle – the convertible. Dodge’s marketing types identified two niche groups to whom the Dakota convertible was likely to appeal: Young trendsetters, and well-off older buyers looking for a pleasure vehicle.
But how many of these people would buy a convertible pickup? Dale Dawkins, Dodge Division’s head of truck product planning, hoped for between 2,500 and 5,000 sales for 1989, with increases from there.” Dodge vice president John Damoose was more sanguine about future years’ sales, saying “we could build up to 30,000 a year, and possibly even more.” Both men were a bit optimistic.
One can’t blame Chrysler for seeing hope in this plan. After all, Chrysler Corporation itself pioneered the convertible’s rebirth just seven years earlier, with its convertible K cars. In that case, Lee Iacocca took a humdrum 2-door sedan, and created a sensation by removing the roof. Could that feat be repeated, but with a pickup? The idea didn’t seem too farfetched for Team LeBaron.
Additionally, in the late 1980s, soft-top light-truck pleasure vehicles – such as the Jeep Wrangler, Geo Tracker and Suzuki Samurai, certainly nurtured a loyal and growing following… another reason for Dodge to feel confident.
For its introductory year, the Dakota convertible was offered in just one trim level – the top-line Sport, itself introduced a year earlier to capture younger buyers with “looks hot enough to melt pavement.” For a $2,000 premium over lesser Dakotas, the Sport added exterior enhancements such as styled wheels, sport stripes, Euro-style blackout treatment (brochure speak for a black-painted grille), a rear step bumper, interior niceties that were optional on other Dakotas, and some functional enhancements like a heavy-duty alternator and battery, front stabilizer bar and upgraded gauges.
Dakota Sports also came standard with Dodge’s 3.9-liter, 125-hp V-6 engine – a welcome improvement from the standard 99-hp four-cylinder engine. All Dakota Sports shared the base Dakota’s 1,450-lb. payload capacity.
Overall, the Dakota, whether Sport or not, was a good, though not particularly memorable, truck to drive. Of course, all that could change with the drop of a top (and an extra $2,000-3,000 for the convertible package).
With base prices starting at about $14,000 for a 2wd (such as our featured truck), and $16,995 for a 4wd, this was not a cheap vehicle. Of course, a hefty price premium was unavoidable, considering the convertible’s production process.
Dakotas were built at Chrysler’s Warren, Michigan truck plant, and then then those destined to become convertibles were shipped 25 mi. to Auburn Hills, where ASC, Inc. (formerly American Sunroof Corp.) removed the steel roof and installed the roll bar and cloth top.
Our featured truck appears to be in fantastic original condition, and this is particularly evident inside. The Bordeaux Red interior shows no visible wear to the bench seat (standard equipment; buckets were also available), and is all-original down to the factory AM/FM non-cassette stereo. This particular truck was ordered with the convertible’s major optional equipment of automatic transmission and air conditioning; power windows and locks were standard. Incidentally, the black plastic slot on the dashboard in front of the passenger seat is a slide-out cupholder, an innovative touch for the times, and standard on all Dakotas. If this truck were a 4×4, the transfer case would be located on the transmission hump.
For 1989, customers could order Dakota convertibles in black, red or white (blue was added for 1990), and all came with the standard complement of Sport package tape stripes. All 1989 convertibles came standard with cast aluminum road wheels, as seen on our featured truck.
In a raised position, the convertible top blended in well with the Dakota’s overall design. On a black example with a black top, most people wouldn’t notice anything unusual about this truck, since aside from the canvas top’s thin-looking pillar area, the rest of the truck looks like a typical Dakota. As indeed it is… the convertible shares the regular Dakota’s 6½’ bed and, in fact, everything other than a small section of roof.
Since the example I found had its top up, it’s helpful to look at a top-down picture to see just how the convertible top opened. The manual top could be raised or lowered by releasing snaps above the sun visors, and lowering the top to its resting position, which was atop the forward part of the truck bed (but not actually lowering into the bed itself). Dodge provided a canvas boot to cover the folded top for a cleaner look, however the boot was big enough to be a hassle to store in the cab, so most owners likely left the boot at home. Alternatively, drivers could remove the folded top completely, if desired, and if confident of sunny weather.
From a driving standpoint, the convertible felt similar to a regular Dakota, as the roll bar maintained the cab’s structural rigidity fairly well. Early press reviews were generally positive, focusing on the fun aspect of driving a truck around with the top down, and the novelty of what Dodge was actually producing.
Favorable press and car show reaction even prompted GM to create its own potential competitor, the GMC Mahalo, which made the car-show circuit in 1990. The Mahalo quickly faded away, however, because Dodge’s own version wasn’t quite exceling in the Showroom Test.
Chrysler executives knew that a convertible truck was a calculated risk, and that success was far from guaranteed. A Dodge Trucks spokesman summed it up well upon the convertible’s launch, by admitting “We have no idea what we’re getting into with this one.”
It turned out that the convertible truck experiment was one that the Dodge folks would rather forget. First year sales of 2,842 were at the low end of expectations, but that number likely represented a big chunk of anyone who would ever consider such a vehicle. 1990 sales fell by about two-thirds (to 909), and it quickly became evident that the experiment failed. Dodge pulled the plug on the Dakota convertible by the end of 1990, though eight examples were evidently produced as 1991 models.
Even though the 1989 model year pointed to a struggling product, Dodge did tweak the Dakota convertible a bit for 1990. Attempting to broaden the truck’s appeal a bit with a lower price, Dodge added a base-model convertible, saving frugal customers from paying for mandatory frills. It didn’t help much, nor did the newly available blue paint or the available white convertible top.
Sometimes ideas just need to be disproven – like whether there’s a market for convertible pickups. Dodge’s Dakota experience demonstrated the answer was No. In hindsight, it’s possible that this vehicle’s closest competitor wasn’t a pickup at all, but rather the Jeep Wrangler – and with no price advantage and no rear seat, buyers just couldn’t justify the Dakota. Or, if potential customers did cross-shop with other pickups, the hefty premium for this convertible put it out of contention. Regardless of what combination of factors sunk the Dakota convertible, it was a resounding verdict, and manufacturers avoided convertible pickups for 30 years…
…until Jeep’s Gladiator debuted for 2020. With Jeep selling more Gladiators every three weeks than the Dakota convertible’s entire production run, it seems that this hit the sweet spot that Dodge missed. Of course, significant differences abound, such as Gladiator’s available hardtop and its full rear seat – many customers may not even regard its top-down capabilities as a reason for buying it. But maybe that’s what it takes to sell a convertible pickup. Time will tell whether the overall idea has more staying power now than it did back in 1989.
Dodge billed the Dakota convertible as “the ultimate fun truck,” and had ample reason to believe customers would agree. But despite the growing popularity of convertibles, burgeoning light truck sales, and a manufacturer adept at creating niche markets, the Dakota convertible achieved no more than footnote status in automotive history – demonstrating that even persistent trends eventually reach their limits.
Photographed in South Yankton, Nebraska in July 2021.